Is There Shame in Not Working?

A classic slacker shirt I had when I was younger. Wish I still had it! 😛

Reading, “The Right Not to Work: Power and Disability” I was struck in particular by the notion of shame and not working.

Although I may be impaired in some sense because I have aspergers and am thus unable to cope with certain things  better, I’m unsure I’d consider myself “disabled” in the sense that this article argues:

Disability theorists make this clear by making a subtle but significant distinction between disability and impairment. The state of being mentally or physically challenged is what they term being impaired; with impairment comes personal challenges and drawbacks in terms of mental processes and physical mobility. To be impaired is to be missing a limb or born with a birth defect; it is a state of embodiment. Being impaired is hard. Without a doubt, it makes things harder than if one is not impaired. However, more often than not, the individual accommodates for this impairment and adapts to the best of their ability. For example, I am impaired by arthrogryposis, which limits the use of my arms, but I make up for this in many ways by using my mouth.

In terms of physical impairments I can personally attest to being physically clumsy.

Yesterday, while working I knocked over a Dr. Pepper bottle and broke it open. I’m still not completely sure how I did this but I must’ve reeled back my elbow a bit too fast and hit the bottle with my elbow while working in the cooler.

Now, I’m certainly not the most clumsy person I know or have met but I’m also definitely compared to neurotypicals, fairly clumsy.

Being clumsy often comes with aspergers (a mild form of autism for those who don’t know) which also impairs me in mental ways. For example, it is harder for me to deal with phenomenons or situations that happen quickly. I’m often keeping my head (barely) above water at my job because my level of getting stressed is a lower threshold than most. I especially respond to frequent bouts of sudden stimuli differently than most. This makes it hard for my coworkers to understand my weird mannerisms or why I do certain things while I work such as be more forgetful than they are or clumsy.

But none of this stops me from being able to work. Does it make it a lot more difficult? Absolutely. But I’ve held short-term jobs sporadically throughout my life and if I’m being honest (and I almost always am) I doubt that’ll change anytime soon. I don’t think I’ll be able to consistently hold down a job not only because of these impairments but also for ideological reasons (hint: look at the title of this blog) as well as emotional reasons.

I don’t want to work at most of the jobs I’ll get for very long. I like building up a bit of money and then seeing if I can live off that for a while and not working. Or, if I work, have it be passion-projects. Maybe they won’t pay me much or won’t pay me anything at all but it’s a way to get a little bit of money or have something to do in between jobs.

That being said, there have been a few particularly long periods in my life (relatively speaking) where I was without a job and I don’t remember feeling much shame. I remember feeling a little anxious about money a few months prior to getting my next job. Especially before I got the job at Kohl’s and had less than a hundred dollars left in total. But I didn’t feel much shame about not having a job. I didn’t feel like whatever I was going to do next was going to be “productive” or that I owed society to do something I’d hate just to pay taxes to a government I didn’t support.

So this notion of shame and (formal) work isn’t something I’m deeply familiar with.

On the other hand, if we take a broader approach to defining work then the situation can be different.

So for instance, sometimes I don’t meet certain commitments with friends or family or I don’t meet a deadline on a passion project. In those cases I certainly sometimes feel a little guilty. It doesn’t happen often but if the commitment was big enough, the project important enough and the affiliated people close enough, then it’s at least possible I’ll feel some measure of shame in failing. I try to pride myself on being honest, reliable and hardworking where it counts. And when I fail that it feels much closer to home.

The way I try to differentiate between what counts and what doesn’t is my stake in the given thing.

If I’m just working a corporate/formal job and it’s just for pay and I don’t know the people involved and/or like my managers then failing to do something isn’t very likely to make me feel much shame. But if I know the co-workers or like them or my managers aren’t too bad I might feel a little bad. Often at my current job I feel more flustered and frustrated then I feel bad.

That’s typically because the mistakes I make aren’t things I’m aware are mistakes at the time (this goes back to me having difficulty dealing with new or sudden stimuli, and this is particularly relevant in a job I’ve never held before – a convenience store cashier) and so I’m unsure how to respond.

With regards to shame itself, I wouldn’t argue that there’s anything wrong with feeling some sort of internal discomfort with not getting something done.

If X means a lot to you and you don’t get it done in the Y amount of time you mean to then feeling bad to some extent might be healthy. But I think it should be constrained by the type of work that’s going on, whose involved and so on.

For example, if you’re in a job that you hate and you disappoint the boss who treats you like shit then does it make much sense to feel bad about messing up? Hell, if you’re lucky it might not get you much (or ideally no) reprimands while causing the boss to have a tougher time.

There was one overnight shift when I was working at Kohl’s and I had an entire load of stock to put out by myself. And even though I was listening to some good music I didn’t feel that motivated to do what I was supposed to do. So I did it, but at the pace that I wanted to. This eventually led to me getting slightly reprimanded but mostly just having a coworker help me out because I wasn’t going fast enough.

On one hand I felt bad because maybe my coworker would’ve had a better situation if it weren’t for my pace. But on the other hand it’s unlikely that at the job we were at that that was a very reasonable expectation to have to begin with.

I do think that shame, generally speaking, is unhelpful for folks to get a grip on things. I don’t think that making ourselves feel these twinges of discomfort consistently over a span of time is the most effective way to compel ourselves towards meaningful action. Partially that’s because these feelings we get from failure can often cloud our minds as to what’s really important. Are you doing X because you actually want to do X? Or are you just doing it because of that feeling in the pit of your stomach that you can’t seem to get rid of?

Even if it’s the latter that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But, again, I think it’s a good thing to keep it in mind. Try to be aware of your motives and what’s keeping you going. Is it resulting in you doing whatever you’re doing effectively or is it miring you down in your unpleasant feelings? Is it causing you to do things but in the course of it making you more unhappy? That’s not always a deal-breaker by itself but think harder about what you’re doing if it’s happening and happening a lot in particular. This is especially true if you want to do X over the long-term and it’s not just a one-time thing.

If you are feeling shame about not working or about not working hard enough then I think that’s something worth examining. Is it really work that means so much to you or is it society’s expectations?

In that vein I’ll quote at length the article I mentioned at the start of this article about what it means to think about the “right to not work” and being disabled.

You should really go check out the full article though, it’s a good one!

Much of the empowering rhetoric in disability movements is about becoming employed and about having equal access to mainstream society. Capitalism has at it root the idea of an individual’s worth being intrinsically linked to their production value.

To ensure that employers are able to squeeze surplus value out of disabled workers, thousands are forced into dead-end and segregated jobs and legally paid below minimum wage (for example, in the case of “sheltered workshops” for those with developmental disabilities).11 The condescension towards the workers in such environments is severe. Why should working be considered so essential that disabled people are allowed to be taken advantage of, and, moreover, expected to be grateful for such an “opportunity”?

Disabled people are brought up with the same cultural ideals and ambitions and dreams as their able-bodied counterparts; we too are indoctrinated to fetishize work and romanticize career and to see the performance of wage labor as the ultimate freedom. And yet, for the most part, we are denied access to this fantasy; many of us live on government aid or family support or even charity. If you have a severe disability your likelihood of having a job is 26.1 percent (as compared to a rate of 82.1 percent for working-age non-disabled people). Our largest contribution to the economy is as “beds,” as nursing homes call the aged and disabled who fill their vacancies and bank accounts. Shouldn’t we, of all groups, recognize that it is not work that would liberate us (especially not menial labor made accessible or greeting customers at Wal-Marts across America), but the right to not work and be proud of it?

What I mean by the right not to work is perhaps as much a shift in ideology or consciousness as it is a material shift. It is about our relation not only to labor but the significance of performing that labor, and to the idea that only through the performance of wage labor does the human being actually accrue value themselves. It is about cultivating a skeptical attitude regarding the significance of work, which should not be taken at face value as a sign of equality and enfranchisement, but should be analyzed more critically. Even in situations where enforcement of the ADA and government subsidies to corporations lead to the employment of the disabled, who tends to benefit, employers or employees?

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